Steve is a former senior military strategist with 28 years service within the US Army, now a writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thinking leaders, he is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild. His writing focuses on issues of foreign policy, national security, strategy and planning, leadership and leader development.
“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
The Siege of Winterfell began with the Dothraki horsemen making a classic Leeroy Jenkins cavalry charge into the unknown, a maneuver that quickly and decisively ceded the initiative to the Army of the Dead. It was a breathtaking moment of cinematic grandeur that provided a wealth of ammunition to the fantasy pundits following the episode. Even though Arya Stark managed – quite heroically, in fact – to save the day, the battle itself was a model for how not to stage a defense of a strong point. Clearly, anyone who survived would be wiser for the experience. Surely, lessons were drawn from the near defeat.
Even the most basic military doctrine addresses the steps necessary to consolidate the gains of operational success. In the face of a determined enemy, consolidation is essential to retaining the initiative, however fragile that initiative might be.
Consolidation represents a period of transition, where forces are resupplied, repositioned, and reorganized, as necessary.
As a result, this transition may result in an operational pause, an opportunity to assess and anticipate enemy courses of action while planning your own.
Unless, of course, your name is Daenerys Targaryen: “We have won the great war. Now we will win the last one.” Those are moving words, words that would spur any army to victory. They are also the words of a leader who fails to recognize that for an army that just lost 50% of its strength, consolidation is not an option. It is an absolute necessity.
Instead, Daenerys leads a very abbreviated form of the military planning process – abbreviated in the sense that it skips all of the steps that involve gathering intelligence, assessing potential enemy courses of action, wargaming those against friendly options, and selecting a plan of attack that provides a force with the greatest opportunity for success. Rather than take the time to properly consolidate gains and prepare for the next phase of combat operations, the Dragon Queen launches her forces south, Leeroy Jenkins-style.
So much for gaining wisdom from the “great” battle. So much for drawing lessons from a battle that cost her almost everything.
Probably the most critical lesson learned from the Siege of Winterfell was the importance of reconnaissance. Ten thousand Dothraki make for an impressive cavalry force, but only if you use them properly. Even without the Dothraki, Daenerys retains two-thirds of her aviation capability (two dragons), enough to provide the “eyes” forward necessary to provide advance warning of enemy positions, movements, and intent. But, Leeroy Jenkins didn’t plan for reconnaissance and neither does Daenerys.
Wafting below the clouds enjoying a Mary Poppins-ish moment with her beloved dragons, Daenerys leads her fleet blindly into a particularly well-armed and prepared ambush, courtesy of the Iron Fleet. Euron Greyjoy promptly dispatches one dragon, Rhaegal, while sending her entire fleet to the bottom of the sea and capturing her advisor and handmaiden, Missandei.
Goodbye initiative, farewell momentum, and cheerio to the element of surprise.
Planning is one of the most tedious and mind-numbing military activities undertaken. The plans produced are often transitory and do not survive initial contact with enemy forces.
Planners themselves can become a surly and cynical lot – countless hours spent locked in a secure facility with stale food and bad coffee will do that. However, planning itself is an invaluable mental exercise that provides commanders with a multitude of perspectives on the complexities of war. As Eisenhower so brilliantly noted, the plans might be useless, but the planning process is indispensable.
With only two episodes remaining, let us all hope that Daenerys can finally embrace military planning. If not, we will all leave Game of Thrones with a Lannister on the Iron Throne.